Calling yourself a “traveller” nowadays invites assumptions of Instagram influenced grandeur. Descriptions of “voyager” are normally found in gap year photo collections and in the “authentic” lifestyle blogs of Instagram influencers, who post highly-edited photos of themselves leaping across the globe.
Whatever it is that we are looking to discover in our travels, our surroundings, or ourselves, it is undeniable that the process of doing so has evolved massively in the last century. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf kept a memorable correspondence during the former’s month-long journey to Iran that now tells us as much about their relationship as the distinguished atmosphere of interwar travel in the Middle East. Today, a bland “I landed” text would be the closest equivalent.
I assume that is also where the saying, “It’s not the destination, but the journey that matters”, found its fame. Yet, in the era in which we have every corner of the world at our fingertips, it is difficult to imagine a different way to travel. For example, while now it takes a few moments to book a trip to anywhere on Earth, travellers in the ‘70s relied on travel agencies for their voyages.
This was only briefly after airlines surpassed shipping lines as the go-to choice for crossing the ocean, and bus travel became more popular than trains for continental transport. Travel agencies had exclusive access to the areas they were assigned to by the International Air Transport Association, such that people had to rely on them for their plans.
Travel has become more accessible in another way: the ‘70s was a decade defined by social movements and stark differences in regimes across the world. China under Mao, for example, was unreachable. Similarly, one could not travel to war-torn Vietnam. Africa, apart from few countries, was offlimits, as well as South America, which was seen as a very adventurous destination, despite its relative stability compared to the rest of the globe.
The Iron Curtain proceeded to cut off the USSR and satellite states from communicating with the rest of Europe. My parents, who spent their teenage years under the Romanian communist regime, helped me put together this account of the history of travel by relaying their experiences travelling over 120 countries in 30 years.
Russia was the first country my father visited, in 1988. It was “nearly impossible” to exit the country at the time, and he travelled to Moscow by train with the Communist Youth organisation. To be able to travel, they needed to belong to a group with a wellestablished pre-approved destination. He felt he had entered a “different universe”, as everything was so much more developed as anything that was available in Romania at the time. The array of products on offer in stores, some of them which you could only get in rations in Romania, was “incomparable” to anything he had experienced before.
For the first time in their lives, they met other young people from all over the world
The next time my parents left the country together was to travel the El Camino route by bus in 1997 to see a Pope John Paul II speech on a trip organised through partnerships between the Catholic churches in Europe. My parents were never religious, but this was one of the few accessible travel opportunities they had, and they were eager to explore Europe by bus, even if that meant they had to spend their nights in sleeping bags surrounded by other youth in gym halls. For the first time in their lives, they met other young people from all over the world and got the taste of real adventure, speaking to the transformative benefits of travel.
30 years later, the landscape has changed dramatically. One of the biggest changes my father has noticed is the fact that, at the dawn of the millennium, prices to travel from the West into Asia or Africa were double what they are now. The internet has also brought benefits to the industry, by spreading information indiscriminately across the world and creating a diverse supply of experiences for all types of travellers. The only boundary is what our minds are capable of desiring.
“Price volatility”, he says, is a drawback the industry has faced. Real-time pricing has soared to the point that hotels can advertise different prices on different website, something that was “inconceivable” 20 years ago, when tariffs would be fixed for weeks or months at a time.
Whether the retrospective to the ‘70s instils nostalgia of an era of authenticity, dread of a time of high boundaries, or both, speaks to our approach to travel. The exponential increase in accessibility has opened plenty of doors for more people than ever, but this has come at at a cost. Aviation has evolved into one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and the massive influx of people in tourist hotspot places have left locals disillusioned, with some politicians now taking advantage of anti-tourism sentiment.
Just as travel in the ‘70s reflected the issues of the decade, so does contemporary travel illustrate our biggest struggles around globalisation. For the future, we need to support and campaign for sustainable tourism practices that encourage ethical modes of transportation and mindful approaches to new and diverse cultures.